Blessed are the lowly provincial hoi polloi

20:24, Oct 28 2012

I'm an old-school purist when it comes to education, cantankerous and likely mistaken in my belief that the consumer-friendly choices of today are no improvement over the limited options I had three decades ago.

After all, I studied Latin at high school, and although my only reason was because it had the attraction of being taught at the neighbouring girls' school, it was still a dead language. Flavia may have been a "puella pulchra romana", but I was more interested in the pulchritude of the teenage Stephanies, Harriets and Annes of Dunedin.

So when I heard the news that Kiwiana is to be taught at Canterbury University next year, I initially dismissed it as another example of degrees in underwater basket-weaving, designed to draw revenue moths, especially fat fee-paying international ones, to Christchurch's shining beacon of higher learning. But in a radio interview, lecturer Katie Pickles, an associate professor of history, made the case that it was a legitimate aspect of history.

Kiwiana is "an expression of Kiwi popular culture in the past", she said. The host asked why Kiwiana icons matter, "given that New Zealand is now such an urbanised population, and these things really harken back to an older, more rural sort of a lifestyle".

Prof Pickles argued that Kiwiana was pop culture preserved in brine. "When you go to the souvenir shop and you see the sheep and the gumboots and the Swanndri, it's not about the reality, it's about the past."

As if confessing to studying Latin hadn't already marked me as a hopeless old fuddy-duddy, now my footwear and clothing are consigning me to the dustbin of history.


But it's not just me. Great swathes of Motropolis, most of the South Island and much of the North Island south of the Bombay Hills suddenly discovered that their rural lifestyle was a relic, fascinating to Canterbury's international students but not that relevant to modern New Zealand.

Yet in the same Morning Report, the news that dairy farmers were likely to face lower payouts next year that would shave $1 billion off the country's export earnings was treated as vitally relevant. There's an odd disconnect between the focus on dairy payouts and the belief that rural New Zealand is somehow a relic. It privileges an Auckland-centric, consumer-driven view, as if The Ridges, with its wine-swillers at SPQR in Ponsonby Rd, is somehow a more contemporary, authentic version of how we like to imagine ourselves than the characters of Country Calendar.

Last Sunday's broadcast of Country Calendar drew 336,110 viewers, making it the fifth most popular show of the day. A similar number tuned in for the debut of The Ridges, which then lost viewers every week until the penultimate episode, when it was down to about 80,000 viewers.

In other words, the Kiwi public has better taste than the tastemakers. The idea that the rural lifestyle is a relic reminded me of economist Brian Easton's comment that without a thriving Christchurch, "the South Island will have to settle for being a rural Arcadia, beloved by tourists, with the odd tertiary institution in a pastoral setting".

I'm not slamming Easton, because I escaped the rat race in order to live in a rural Arcadia. And that choice is true for a lot of Motropolis, whose residents either had the good sense not to leave or are refugees from faster-paced lives elsewhere.

A day spent in the Abel Tasman with a group of i-SITE travel consultants from around the South Island last week brought that home. These people were experts on some glorious parts of the Mainland, from Punakaiki to Hanmer to Kaikoura, and yet they were blown away by what our region has to offer. They returned home determined to convince tourists that they should spend more than one night in the area, and several told me they wanted to bring their own families back for a holiday.

The truth is that focusing on the wine-swillers does us no favours. I see it as vestigial evidence of the cultural cringe we have supposedly abandoned.

Swanndris and gumboots are faintly embarrassing because they remind us of a more provincial New Zealand, when we would like to imagine that we are just as cosmopolitan as the cosmopolitan swillers of Manhattan. But as anyone who has spent time among the inhabitants of the world's great cities will tell you, those people don't come to New Zealand to visit our cities, and Kiwis and Kiwi businesses are valued overseas precisely for the characteristics that come from our provincial pioneers: ingenuity, self-reliance and the ability to get along with all kinds of people.

A few years ago, I interviewed several immigrants for a story for popular American magazine Men's Journal on why New Zealand was the best place to emigrate to. The editor asked me to add a small sidebar on one must-have item a visitor should buy. My answer was a Swanndri, because you never knew when the weather would turn nasty.

But I also picked it because it was a unique expression of Kiwi culture: rugged, practical, durable. Wearing it in one of those cosmopolitan-swilling watering holes in Brooklyn (New York, not Motueka) would earn a Men's Journal-reading hipster far more credibility than a T-shirt from a cool Auckland nightspot that aspires to nothing more than aping the rest of the world.